A great day out on a scooter
Published/Last edited or updated: 14th January, 2018
Formerly a notorious KMT (Kuomintang) army post named Mae Aw, the border village of Ban Rak Thai has reinvented itself as a kind of mini Mae Salong.
Think fluffy tourist destination, where tea and temperate fruits have replaced opium and day tripper-filled minibuses rolling up to tea tasting shops replace mule trains guided by drug-funded private armies. Visitors, (especially mainland Chinese), now visit to sample the local brews, preserved fruit and eat in cafes serving purported Yunnanese specialities.
Residents are predominantly descendants of the Republican Chinese soldiers that sought refuge here after defeat by Mao’s forces, though very few veterans remain these days. Ban Rak Thai is also home to various other groups who fled Burma in former times including Lahu, Pa-O and even Wa as well as Shan families. The casual visitor would be hard pushed to tell the difference though, and most families in the village are involved in producing and selling tea, dried fruit and refreshments for visitors.
The village is cute with plenty of old south Chinese style cottages along a windy road around a small artificial lake in the centre. Many buildings are constructed using traditional methods of mud and straw. Low hills covered in tea plantations surround the village and the border is a mere kilometre or so further north.
We found many of the cafes and restaurants grossly overpriced and the tea tasting better in much more scenic Mae Salong and whilst the village has numerous (also overpriced) guesthouses they are largely aimed at local tourists and personally, we’d stick to a day trip. We ate in the first cafe on the right as you enter the village. A simple affair run by a Wa woman that was recommended to us by a friendly tea seller and who served us an excellent and copious Shan noodle soup for 40 baht.
As you arrive at the lakeside you’ll see a clutch of smart tea and souvenir shops as well as Yunnan specialty cafes with minibuses parked outside but if you continue around the lake you’ll reach a quaint village square with quieter, lower-key stalls which we reckon are better if you do want to taste the tea or preserved fruits.
You can, conditions permitting, cross the border to Burma here, if you leave your passport (and some cash) with the immigration police but you have to return before 17.00. We didn’t try ourselves so can’t guarantee it works and we’re not sure what is actually over the border either.
The best thing about Ban Rak Thai to our minds is the scenic 44km drive to get there through some beautiful countryside and cute villages. If you include a series of visit-worthy sites enroute it makes for a great and varied day out as long as you have access to a scooter. You can start off with an early visit to Su Tong Pae Bridge; stop off at the mud spa and check-out the Pa Sua Waterfall which can be spectacular at certain times of the year. All these sites are adjacent to the Mae Hong Son to Ban Rak Thai road.
On our return ride, we also detoured to Pang Oung (there are several spelling variations for this) which is another beauty of a spot, also popular with domestic visitors. The novelty of these out of the way sites for Thai tourists are mostly the cool winter temperatures (a unique experience for say Bangkok residents) and the scenic morning sea of fog phenomenon during winter months. The small village of Pang Oung is home to a small but picturesque lake surrounded by pine-covered hills and comes with several basic guesthouses and campsites though lacks the tea tasting shop proliferation of Ban Rak Thai. (It is a Shan, not KMT settlement.) Here most buildings are equally traditional though in this case built of wood with teak leaf roofs. The cute village houses a few simple noodle stalls while back on the lake you can rent a bamboo raft and be paddled around the lake for 150 baht.
To reach Pang Oung from Ban Rak Thai you’ll need to backtrack to the large Hmong village of Ban Na Pa Paek (on your right as you enter the village, there’s a great little coffee shop) and take the sealed road to the right leading off west. This winds a dozen or so kilometres through more delightful scenery until you merge in the tiny gated village of Pang Oung. The lake and forest park begin at the far end of the one-street settlement.
While we’re sceptical about Ban Rak Thai’s worth as a destination in its own right—especially if you’ve already visited Mae Salong—taken in conjunction with the other sites mentioned above it does make for a great day out on a motorbike. If you really want to visit and don’t have a scooter then there are occasional songthaews departing from the municipal market in Mae Hong Son, though of course this doesn’t allow for any stops on the way. Alternatively, several day tour programmes offered by Mae Hong Son travel agents include a visit to Ban Rak Thai.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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